Confession: I’m lousy at flirting and flirtation. Always have been. Probably because I take flirting seriously, as the initial step toward a hoped-for actual relationship and so something to be used sparingly. I hate the idea of leading someone on, of sending mixed or wrong messages.
verb, flirt: Behave as though attracted to or trying to attract someone, but for amusement rather than with serious intentions.
noun, flirtation: Behavior that demonstrates a playful sexual attraction to someone.
(From Oxford Dictionary)
Clearly – based on Oxford’s definitions – I have it all wrong. And, to make things worse, it seems that what I consider normal, fun small talk with members of the opposite sex is sometimes interpreted as flirtatious, when that isn’t my intent.
It’s all so confusing.
A Missed Learning Opportunity
I screwed up royally as a 15-year-old sophomore in high school, accepting the first date offered me. He was a senior and took an interest in me, which I found flattering and frankly easy on my part, and so we started dating. And because I was sure no one else would find me attractive, we continued dating until getting married the summer after I graduated high school. (A big mistake, a decision made for all the wrong reasons, a long story for another time.)
By my 20th birthday, I was a divorcée.
I missed a critical window for learning how to flirt.
Newly divorced, single and in college, I was too quiet and self-conscious to be overtly flirtatious, even when attracted to someone. I was an observer, not an initiator.
If a guy showed interest in me first, I was able to converse, smile, and laugh. But I never made the initial overture.
I read articles in Cosmopolitan magazine about how to flirt. Smile, play with your hair, lightly touch their sleeve while laughing.
I tried. I really did.
On the plus side, I have naturally large pupils, which – it turns out – are an unconscious yet visible signal of one’s attraction to another. Apparently, I give flirtatious signals all the time, even when I’m not feeling an attraction!
So I wasn’t a complete failure at flirting. But as I said, I found it confusing. And frustrating.
First dates were agony for me, in college and after. I’d get so stressed my stomach would tie in knots for hours in advance. If it was a dinner date, I could barely eat, which made me feel even worse, wasting the food (and usually his money). Because dating was so stressful for me, I generally avoided it. I became really picky, hoping a first date would lead to a long-term relationship so I could relax. “Dating around” held no appeal for me.
Having guy friends was so much easier. I made lots of male friends at my university IMA (intramural activities) building, lifting weights, playing volleyball and badminton.
I wasn’t horribly shy once a connection was made. I just had trouble making the first move.
I attended the University of Washington from September 1977 – May 1980. (While married, I got a few credits at a small, teacher’s college in central Washington.) This was my first experience in an international community. I met students from around the globe. It was exhilarating and I loved learning about them and their cultures. Playing a sport together at the IMA broke the ice and because I found their “otherness” fascinating, it was easier to meet and talk.
My interest was often interpreted as flirting.
Dating – and Not Dating – International Students at University
First, I had a date with Fred, a handsome, tall, volleyball-playing student from China. He offered to cook me a Chinese meal at his apartment. This was my first introduction to rice cookers; I was enthralled with the idea that cooking rice could be so easy! He stir-fried vegetables. It was delicious. He had his own lake-side apartment, a luxury among the students I knew, indicating the wealth of his family in China. I liked Fred, but the language and cultural barriers were high and neither of us was good at flirting. He didn’t ask for a second date, probably thinking I wasn’t interested. I wasn’t “forward” so we simply maintained a nodding acquaintance on the volleyball court.
There were a lot of Iranian students on campus in those years, many of them coming from wealthy families and not afraid to show their privilege. The Chevy Camaro was their vehicle of choice. This was just before the fall of the Shah in early 1979. Turns out volleyball, along with soccer, were popular sports in Iran, so in the winter many of them played volleyball at the IMA. I met several there. (If there were female students from Iran on campus, I never met them.)
I also had two Iranian students living in the apartment next to mine. One – Aziz – was an Iranian Jew. Yes; imagine that for a moment. He was a wonderful person, his English was excellent, and we talked at length about what it was like to belong to that religious minority in his country.
One of the Iranian volleyball players asked me out. His name was Dariush (pronounced Dar-ee-oosh). A graduate student in mechanical engineering, he lived with his brother and a cousin in an apartment off campus. Smart, sweet, proper, and darkly handsome, he was hard to resist.
Photo: Me and Dariush on a hike at Hurricane Ridge, Olympic National Park, 1978.
I began sharing some meals with Dariush and his roommates. Their mothers had taught them how to cook several favorite meals. Mostly I remember lots of lamb and vegetables, and rice. The rice would simmer on the stove all day (it seemed) in a huge pot, with the main course cooked just before dinner and served on top of the rice. But what I loved most was the crusty rice from the bottom of the pot. They lined the pot with oil to keep the rice from burning and that created a hardened layer that they often tossed out but to me was like candy. I didn’t care for the lamb but I loved the rice.
Dariush also introduced me to pomegranates and roasted pistachio nuts, Persian favorites.
Dariush and his family were Zoroastrians. It’s one of the world’s oldest continuously practiced religions. It was a disfavored and minority religion in Iran. Most of the Iranian students at the U of W were Muslim, and the tension between them and non-Muslim Iranians on campus, as well as the general student population, became more obvious as the ’70s were coming to a close and politics in Iran became more incendiary.
When things in Iran devolved into demonstrations against the Shah, I felt drawn into an intrigue that held no consequences for me but was fascinating nonetheless. I was dating an Iranian Zoroastrian. My neighbor was an Iranian Jew. They were terrified. What might happen to their families back home? Would they be able to finish their educations in the US? For me, it was an education in the far-reaching and individually real impacts of world politics that no amount of tuition, no course in political science, could have provided.
And, since I needed foreign language credits to graduate and didn’t want to start all over with French (which I took in junior high school), I signed up for Persian my junior year. What I hoot! For two semesters I learned a new way of reading and writing (from right to left in the Persian alphabet), lessons based on Persian fairy tales in which lions figured large. The instructor was a disheveled older British guy who, I suspected, spent his nights with a bottle of some hard liquor but by day told us ribald stories that often had no relation to our assignments but were entertaining.
Dariush and I broke up toward the end of my junior year. Our cultural differences were more than I felt willing to take on long-term. Besides, having recently gotten free of a bad marriage, I wasn’t willing to tie myself down to anyone. I had plans!
Yet I continued to attract foreign students like moths to a light. Most likely because I found them fascinating, so different from me, and my interest in them as people came across as flirting.
During my senior year I was involved in student government (ASUW). Our governing board spent lots of time interacting with a broad spectrum of students and student groups seeking funding for all sorts of programs.
ASUW offices were in the HUB (Husky Union Building – go Huskies!) in the center of campus. The building also housed the main campus cafeteria, multiple offices, meeting rooms, an auditorium, a small theater, a game room, and three small music practice rooms with old beat up upright pianos. Those pianos were my salvation. My own piano was living with my father at that time, so these practice rooms allowed me to continue playing, reducing my stress during exams in particular.
The practice rooms were always locked. I had to find a janitor or building supervisor with a key to gain access. I usually wanted to play in the evenings, and the supervisor on duty was George. A student from Nigeria, he was always polite and cheerful, happy to help me. He dressed nicely, in khakis and button-down shirts, as if working in an office setting. His smile lit up the room.
George and I became friends, exchanging banter when we saw each other. His accent was musical to my ears. He always knew which practice room was available. Once, the day after a concert held in the HUB, George let me play on a grand concert piano still on the auditorium stage before it was returned to the music arts building. What a thrill.
One day George came by my ASUW office. He asked me out. To save his feelings, I lied and said I was dating someone. This was midway through my senior year and I was focused on taking the LSAT, applying to law schools, and starting law school in the fall. I didn’t want to date anyone. I wasn’t dating anyone. But I hated thinking I might hurt George’s feelings so I lied.
George accepted my excuse graciously. He never changed his demeanor toward me. We continued to exchange friendly banter, and he continued to unlock practice rooms for me.
But about a week later, another Nigerian student came to visit me at my ASUW office. This gentleman was a bit older, maybe 40, someone generally known around the HUB and to those of us in student government as Dr. Joe, a physician in his home country who was pursuing post-graduate work at the U of W. His history was a bit fuzzy, and many wondered if his backstory was true. He was short, bald, with a pot belly, and…flamboyant. He enjoyed drawing attention to himself, speaking in a booming voice.
I knew who Dr. Joe was, but had never spoken to him before. I invited him into my office. I sat behind my desk and he took the single guest chair in front of it. I thought he had student government business on his mind. Instead, he shut the door behind us. After we both were sitting, he opened an unusual line of questioning.
“Do you know why I’m here?” he asked.
“No. No idea,” I replied, truthfully.
“I’m here on behalf of my friend George,” he said.
Gulp. I began to feel very uncomfortable, not sure where this was going.
“George said you didn’t want to go out with him.”
“I’m dating someone else,” I explained, extending my initial lie.
Dr. Joe then goes where I wasn’t expecting nor could have imagined.
“Have you ever slept with a black man?” he asked.
“No,” I answered, honestly. Now I’m really uncomfortable.
“Well, you should,” Dr. Joe said, leaning forward in his chair. “Do you know why?”
Holding my breath, debating whether to respond at all but curious how he’ll respond, I finally say, “No. Why?”
“Because they are excellent lovers. I know, because I’ve made women cry.”
He was dead serious. And he emphasized those last five words by lowering and slowing his voice and smiling lasciviously as he stared right at me.
I was stunned. And intensely uncomfortable.
How to respond?
I wanted to let out a bark of a laugh, but my polite side managed to simply smile as I repeated my lie about already dating someone and thanking him for his visit as I quickly ushered him out of my office.
Poor George, I’m pretty sure he had no idea his compatriot went to such extremes to try to convince me to go out with him.
But upon reflection, I began berating myself. Had I unintentionally flirted with George? Had I led him on? I must have, for him to vent to Dr. Joe who decided a visit to my office to try to convince me to date George was appropriate.
Most women of my generation will understand this stupid-think. Women’s liberation was a hot topic, but putting theory into practice was definitely a work in progress in the ’70s. We were trained from infancy to take on everyone else’s feelings and put them above our own, especially those of men. Protect the male ego at all costs. Let them down easy.
My ultimate takeaway from the encounter was to avoid any interactions that might be interpreted as flirtatious.
[I admit, though, I’ve gotten lots of mileage out of that line by Dr. Joe. There’s always an upside!]
Obviously, I sucked at flirting and at avoiding unintentional flirting.
And conversely, lacking confidence that only came later in life, I often failed to notice when someone was flirting with me.
A prime example of this involves another man named George. My interactions with him started while I was at the U of W but continued long after.
I was a history major at the U of W, focusing mostly on WWII-era European history. During my junior and senior years, I took two courses on English/European history taught by a new professor. George B had recently graduated with a doctorate from Stanford and his first teaching gig was as associate professor at the U of W. He was young – 30 at the most – fit and trim, with short-cropped curly brown hair, bright brown eyes, a long nose and big, friendly smile. He was wicked smart and made the material interesting and challenging. He also had high expectations; I worked hard to earn those A’s.
I was attracted to George. So were most of the other female students in his classes. But because student-professor relationships were taboo, I didn’t ever consider acting on that attraction. (Other than having a friend call the department, pretending to be hosting a party and wanting to know the name of George’s wife for his invitation, only to have the secretary confirm he was single. But that was just basic curiosity, right?) I remember being asked out by a graduate student who had been the teaching assistant for a Classics course I took around this time. He said he waited until the course was done and grades assigned before asking for the date so he wouldn’t be breaking any rules. (He took me to one of Wagner’s Ring cycle operas, four hours long. Ugh. There wasn’t a second date.)
While taking George’s course my senior year, I noticed one student in particular seemed to always be chatting with George during his office hours. I was jealous, because I didn’t have her nerve. The one time I did visit with George in his office that year, to talk about a paper, he asked lots of questions about me and my future plans and was very chatty and friendly, but I was incredibly nervous and refused to believe our exchange was anything more than typical for professors and students.
I graduated in May 1980 and in August moved to the nearby city of Tacoma to start law school at the University of Puget Sound. Roughly a year later I read about the U of W’s Distinguished Teaching Awards and decided to write a letter nominating George B. My memory of the details gets fuzzy here, but George was one of three professors given a Distinguished Teaching Award in 1982, apparently on the basis of my letter, which was shared with him. He wrote me a letter of thanks. And, because the award came with a cash gift, offered to take me out to lunch – in Tacoma – to celebrate.
I remember being confused by this. Was he interested in me, or was this just him being polite because my letter garnered him some (deserved) recognition and helped his career? I accepted his invitation. Then I got nervous. Hoping to make the trip interesting and worthwhile for him, I suggested he sit in on one of my law classes to observe the dreaded Socratic teaching method in action. He readily accepted. I honestly don’t remember much of that “date” because I was so nervous, refusing to believe it was a date, that he could be interested in seeing me again, seeing me romantically, but wondering…?
I’m sure it was awkward. It must have been, because I seem to have erased most of it from my memory. I think we had lunch at a restaurant after my class.
There was no follow-up.
I graduated law school in May 1983 and spent the summer studying for the bar exam. In October I learned I passed, and by December 1st had accepted a job in eastern Washington.
In early 1986 I returned to Seattle.
Apparently, I had George on my mind, and must have written him a note in care of his office at the university. Most likely I suggested something casual like getting together for a run. One thing I did learn during that law school date was that, like me, George was a runner and triathlete. I remember all this today only because I have a postcard that I received from him, from London, dated October 1986. He explained he was spending that academic year in London, on sabbatical, doing research.
Once again, my timing sucked.
I remember showing my mother the postcard. After reading it, she said, “He likes you.”
What? How could she reach that conclusion from a few sentences on a postcard?
She pointed out that (a) he responded to my note, and (b) he held a door open by suggesting we “link up” when he returned from sabbatical, a sentence I had interpreted as simple politeness in response to my suggestion of a run.
She thought the postcard was him flirting with me. I didn’t see it, and worse, didn’t believe it.
Life went on. I dated one man on-and-off for five years (into the early ’90s), then not long after, another man for ten years, from 1992-2002.
In 1995, I returned to the U of W as a part-time student. I didn’t enjoy practicing law and, wanting to become a physical therapist, needed to pick up lots of science courses. I dropped by George’s office one day to say hello, and we caught up. I was happily partnered, so I wasn’t trying to hook up, just catch up. George wove lots of “we” into his sentences and in that way I learned he was in a relationship, living with another professor.* George invited me to join him and his training buddies (mostly other professors) for lunch break runs from the IMA. I did on occasion, and even joined them on a few longer weekend runs which were followed by coffee and pastries at a café. A fun group.
I eventually gave up on physical therapy as a career goal and by 1999 returned to practicing law full time. My own committed relationship was going great until 2002 when we split up (but remained trail running friends).
On December 24, 2004, while running with my two female Malamutes in a suburban park north of Seattle and near the U of W, I saw George running with his pals, the same group I’d run with a few years earlier. He looked my way, but we were going opposite directions and didn’t stop to speak. I wasn’t sure he recognized me. I decided to send him an email. I wrote about seeing him that morning, and described a few things going on in my life since we’d last seen each other.
I closed by writing,
I thought I would contact you at this time because I’m planning on moving to the mountains of Idaho (McCall area) in 2005, and who knows if I’ll ever bump into you again. You should know that I’ve always considered you an excellent teacher, someone who had a positive impact on my life – and I can’t say that about too many teachers I encountered over the years. You required that your students do their best to earn a decent grade; you demanded good scholarship. You made history fun and interesting, made it come alive. In fact, you and Jon Bridgman are the only two of all my history professors I can still name these many years later. (I hope you understand that in my view, being put in the same class with Prof. Bridgman is high praise indeed.) Skills I learned in your classes carried over to my law school years and beyond, and for that I thank you. Teachers – at any level – never get enough thanks, and I didn’t want to be remiss by not expressing my thanks to you. I hope other of your students have done so in the past, and continue to do so in the future.
George emailed back. Here are portions of his long response:
…I remember your two handsome (and BIG) malamutes from that run on the 24th. I’m so fond of dogs that I forget to check out their human companions – hence my failure to say hello.
…Thank you for the kind words about my teaching. Given the State of Washington’s (or, more accurately, the state legislature’s) seeming indifference to faculty remuneration, the sort of personal “payment” you offer is all the more gratifying. Interesting that you would think well of both Jon Bridgman and Yours Truly: A year ago I officially became the “Jon Bridgman Endowed Professor of History.” A group of longtime Bridgman admirers decided to raise a significant sum of $ to “endow” a professorship in Jon’s honor. Happily, I was tapped to be the first holder of this professorship.
Since you are intrepid, have two snow-loving dogs, and seem ready to try just about anything, the move to Idaho makes sense. I’d love to escape the traffic and noise of the Puget Sound area, but as long as I’m teaching and doing research full-time……..
Thanks again for taking the time to touch base, Becky. May 2005 be kind to you and all those close to you.
No one had ever referred to me as “intrepid.” I love that word.
Was my last email to George my way of flirting just a little? Maybe, even though as far as I knew at that time he was still in a committed relationship. I wasn’t seeking an in-person meeting; I was moving away soon. Mostly it was a sincere thank you to someone I figured I’d never see again for being a teacher who had a positive influence on my life, and a friend as well.
George is still teaching at the U of W. I just checked. He must be about seventy now.
Beyond a fun stroll down memory lane for me, there is a point I’m hoping to make with this post. About flirting, about life, about not missing chances.
Bad timing, mixed messages, missed opportunities and connections, these have been a pattern throughout my life. Which is weird, because normally I’m great at reading body language and sussing peoples’ motives and intentions.
Just not when they involve possible romantic inclinations toward me, apparently.
I rarely indulge in what-ifs and regrets, but I do wish I had been bolder, more direct, taken the bull by the horns (so to speak) more often when I was younger. Learned to flirt effectively. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, especially in romance. All I had at risk was a bruised ego.
I wonder what might have happened with Professor George if I’d been less self-conscious, more confident and bolder. Because as much as I hate to admit it, I think my mother was right: George liked me. I failed to believe it, let alone act upon it.
That’s a big what-if that today I’m happy leaving as is.
But if someone were to ask my advice, I’d say: Be brave, be bold, be who you want to be. Don’t let fear hold you back.
*It has taken me a lifetime to figure out that when you encounter someone from your past and they start talking about their current partner – without any prompting and mostly out of context – that’s a huge clue that they once liked you.
Dogs Flirt, Too!
Thinking about miscues when flirting reminded me of a funny encounter I observed between my dog Conall and another dog at the xc ski area two winters ago. This is a dog-friendly, dogs always off leash area, and almost all the dogs we encounter there are wonderful.
Dogs in general are good at giving and interpreting visual cues and body language. They’re usually either telling another dog to leave them alone, or seeking to play and flirt. Conall is a master flirter. I watch and learn.
But the female dog we met back at the parking lot that day gave off some weird signals upon seeing Conall. Her hackles went up, she bared her teeth and snarled as she dashed toward him. I was about to whisk Conall away, fearing a fight, when I noticed his tail wagging in that way that tells me he’s intrigued. He started flirting and approaching her.
I fear I’ve spent a lifetime flirting like that black dog.
[This post was inspired by Martha Kennedy’s post My Arabia in which she shared memories of some of the Arab students she met and taught in the 70s and 80s. As I read her post and reminisced about the foreign students I met – and in some cases dated – in that same period, I realized that it all boiled down to flirting, or more precisely, my lack of skills in that area.]
Feature image: a country flirtation scene by French painter Edouard Debat-Ponsan, 1847-1913.